- The Washington Times - Monday, March 15, 2004

Bill Clinton, whom some glibly tagged our first “rock ‘n’ roll president,” wore the hearing aids to prove it.

It’s difficult to say whether Mr. Clinton’s predilection for ‘60s-era rock led to his deteriorating hearing, but some in the audiology field contend his fellow baby boomers are suffering hearing loss at a higher rate than past generations.

Boomers, those born in the 20 years after World War II, shouldn’t retroactively curse their concert-going past. Modern conveniences, such as portable Walkman-like stereos and occupational hazards are more likely the main problems.

The National Health Interview Survey by the National Center for Health Statistics has reported 26 percent more hearing loss among those in the 46-to-64 age bracket than in past generations. That translates into about 16 million persons in that age group suffering some degree of hearing loss.

However, those numbers draw on surveys conducted between 1971 and 1990. Some audiology specialists contacted for this story bemoan the lack of fresher numbers, while others point to an increasingly noisy environment as something that shouldn’t be ignored.

Teri Wilson-Bridges, director of the hearing and speech center at the Washington Hospital Center, says today’s boomers face more hearing loss than previous generations.

Too many are reluctant to admit they have a problem, Mrs. Wilson-Bridges adds.

“It’s more associated with my grandmother’s age,” she says is a common refrain.

In fact, according to a 2003 report by Consumers Union, from the publisher of Consumer Reports, nearly 40 percent of people experience hearing loss by age 65.

Perceptions over boomer hearing loss began to shift when President Clinton went public with his hearing devices, blaming not only rock concerts but also presidential helicopter flights and raucous campaigns.

“Then, we noticed more baby boomers came in,” Mrs. Wilson-Bridges says.

Residual hearing loss can be tied to a number of boomer-friendly activities, including using power tools for extended periods and spending the afternoon with Walkman-style headphones blasting dinosaur rock.

“It all contributes over time to hearing loss,” Mrs. Wilson-Bridges says.

Exposure to extremely loud sounds causes the hair cells of the inner ear, as well as the tissues holding them in place, to become damaged. Individual hair cells react to pitches, or sound frequencies, and translate outside noise signals into nerve impulses, which are sent to the brain by the cochlear part of the acoustic nerve.

The symptoms of hearing loss can sneak up, Mrs. Wilson-Bridges says.

“A lot of times, people notice they’re having more trouble hearing people in restaurants or crowded situations,” she says.

Dr. James Battey, director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, doesn’t discount that baby boomers’ hearing may be faltering. Dr. Battey says, though, that the data isn’t quite there yet to support that statement definitively.

The key to external sources causing hearing loss is the combination of three factors, “the loudness of the sound, the duration of exposure and the distance away from the source of noise,” Dr. Battey says.

A landscaper who works around a leaf blower eight hours a day could be at risk without wearing ear protection.

Occasionally taking in a boisterous rock concert shouldn’t be cause for concern.

“If you go to an occasional concert, you’re there for an hour or two several times a year,” he says. “That’s not liable to have a significant effect.”

A single loud noise can do enough damage by itself, however.

“If you’re a recreational hunter, and you’re shooting a shotgun with no ear protection, it’s liable to damage your hearing,” he says. “A single [noise] impulse can deafen you, but it’s not typical.”

Ted Madison, president of the Denver-based nonprofit National Hearing Conservation Association, says living in a noisy world gives hearing experts pause about society’s effects on baby boomers’ hearing levels.

“A lot of us have the perception that, as a population, we’re doing noisier things,” says Mr. Madison, whose group comprises audiologists, doctors and noise-control engineers.

He adds that it doesn’t help that our culture loves big, brash sounds.

Take auto racing, for instance. He watched a recent NASCAR broadcast in which viewers were asked to crank up the television’s volume when the racers cranked up their engines.

“This is really something they think viewers love, being overwhelmed by sound. It troubles a lot of us in the hearing-health field,” he says.

Cheryl McGinnis, executive director of the American Tinnitus Association, a nonprofit group based in Portland, Ore., says, “We are seeing a greater interest in higher intensity levels to show excitement, to feel the music.”

About 90 percent of those suffering tinnitus, a ringing in the ears, also have hearing-loss symptoms.

And while those with early hearing loss begin complaining about missing parts of conversation, those with early signs of tinnitus will experience temporary ringing in their ears after loud noises, such as a rock concert.

Hearing loss can’t be reversed, but a wealth of options, including digital hearing aids and cochlear implant devices, remain viable alternatives.

Hearing experts warn that noise levels at 85 decibels or higher can threaten hearing if exposure is continual. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration demands that workers exposed to 90 decibels for more than an eight hours at a time use earmuffs or earplugs.

Some noise pollution sneaks up, says Leah Lakins, managing editor of Volta Voices, the bimonthly magazine for the Alexander Graham Bell Association for the Deaf in the District.

The average traffic jam can kick up 75 to 80 decibels, Miss Lakins says.

“You can have Mack trucks, motorcycles with more intense engines, younger people souping up their [Honda] Civics,” Miss Lakins says. “It’s adding to noise pollution.”

Whatever problems baby boomers may have with their hearing could be small compared to what today’s twentysomethings face, she says.

“My brother is a drummer, and at 29, he’s starting to lose some of his hearing,” she says.

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